The History of the Opera Glove; From Josephine to Shania

(Much of the information on this page was drawn from C. Cody Collins' 1945 book, Love of a Glove (Fairchild). This little book, unhappily long out of print, is a veritable goldmine of information on gloves. Other sources of information used in this article include Gloves, Valerie Cumming (Anchor Press, 1982); Hand In Glove, Bill Severn (David McKay, 1965); and Gloves Past and Present, Willard M. Smith (Imperial, 1918). All these books are out of print but can be found in well-stocked public libraries.)

The Origin of the Opera-Length Glove

While gloves have been worn for nearly three thousand years, the garment we know as the opera glove seems to have first evolved in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Queen Elizabeth I of England is reported as wearing an 18-inch-long pair of white leather gauntlets, with two inches of gold fringe, at a ceremony at Oxford in 1566. (Severn, p. 34) Some hundred years later, England's Queen Mary was painted in a portrait wearing a pair of elbow-length gloves:

Queen Mary of England, 1690
Queen Mary II with mantilla, fan, and white elbow-length gloves, 1690

Over-the-elbow gloves, as we know them, first became popular as standard items of fashion around the time of Napoleon I, though long gloves were already coming into fashion while he was still making his military reputation in Italy:

Ladies promenading, 1796
Three women wearing elbow-length gloves and carrying parasols, circa 1796

Napoleon himself was a great lover of gloves; he is reported, as of 1806, to have in his wardrobe no fewer than 240 pairs of gloves! He was very much appreciative of beautiful and interesting feminine attire, and encouraged his Empress, Josephine, and the other ladies of his court to dress in the height of style and fashion. For example, at his and Josephine's coronation in 1804, the gloves made for the ceremony cost thirty-three francs per pair, a considerable sum in these days - but then, good gloves have always been costly! (Severn, p. 38)

An evening out, 1808
Long gloves with the elaborate Empire fashions of 1808

The wearing of gloves by women had been popular since the time of Catherine de Medici, but the Empress Josephine, by her fancy for long gloves, started a nationwide craze, which rapidly spread throughout all Europe and America, during the Napoleonic period. (She actually wore gloves for somewhat prosaic reasons, since she was very dissatisfied with her hands, thinking them ugly; this is the same motivation that drove another famous beauty, Vivien Leigh, to wear gloves as frequently as she could.)

Josephine at a reception
Josephine, then the wife of First Consul Napoleon, wears long gloves at a diplomatic reception ca. 1800

The Napoleonic/Regency glove style is well-demonstrated in the following photograph of Jacqueline Bisset as Josephine in a 1987 TV miniseries; please note that this is a smaller version - the full-size image is available in the galleries; many more genuine period images are available in the Regency gallery.

Jacqueline Bisset as Empress Josephine
Jacqueline Bisset wears white opera gloves (note the absence of buttons) in her 1987 role as Josephine

(Image appears courtesy of John Bartelt)

Napoleonic and Regency (as this period was called in England - this was the era Jane Austen wrote about, and ladies wearing long gloves are often to be seen in films made of her books, such as "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma") gloves were of many materials and a bewildering variety of colors. Kidskin and cloth were favored materials, and the gloves were often made so that they fitted loosely around the wearer's arm and could be "scrunched" down toward the wrist at the wearer's option.

Starting from about 1810, sleeves began to grow longer, and the length of gloves in most cases shortened correspondingly. However, long gloves were still customarily worn with formal dress until around 1825:

Veil and feathers, 1820
Two ladies (in veil, on right and in feathers, on left) wear long white gloves

(For a comprehensive list of gallery pages relating to the Napoleonic/Regency period available at For the Love of Opera Gloves, please visit Opera Gloves in the Napoleonic/Regency Era: The General Index.)

From approximately 1825 on, though, the opera glove fell into a five-decade period of desuetude as the long sleeves of the early- to mid-Victorian period came to dominate women's fashions; even when sleeves were worn short, as in most evening gowns of the period, gloves were still short, usually wrist-length, no more than 12 to 14 inches at most.

The Golden Age of the Opera Glove

The "opera glove", in the version we most commonly know it today - a glove of between 19 and 23 inches in length, made of kid leather and colored white, ivory or black, with a wrist opening closing with three buttons or snap, and often with three lines stitched across the back of the hand - is a type called the mousquetaire in French. If that name sounds familiar when you sound it out, it should; the glove is a feminine adaptation of a style that was originally developed for use by the French musketeers - yes indeed, the Three Musketeers and that lot! - in the 17th century. In the original form, these gloves were made in singles (half-pairs) for use in dueling, and were constructed so as to fit over a sleeve. These gloves often had wrist belts with buttons for everyday dress and jeweled clasps for court wear. When the mousquetaire was redesigned for ladies, it was refined so that the glove was much longer (over the elbow usually, sometimes as far up as the shoulder), and designed with its modern characteristic feature, the lengthwise opening (usually 2 to 3 inches long), which is made to be closed with small buttons in clusters of three or four (most commonly of pearl or a pearl-like material), or, after about 1890, with snap fasteners. The longest mousquetaires were designed so that the sleeves could wrinkle attractively as they wrapped their wearer's arms. (Severn, p. 39, 72-3)

Three actresses in the 1997 movie Anna Karenina
Three actresses demonstrate the wearing of white kid opera gloves in a scene from the 1997 movie "Anna Karenina", starring Sophie Marceau

Before the 1870's, gloves tended to be wrist-length for daytime wear, since sleeves on daytime dresses were usually full-length in the Victorian period, and usually were elbow-length or shorter for evening wear. It is particularly appropriate that this site's gallery should feature so many actresses wearing gloves, for the mousquetaire was introduced to America during the 1870's by perhaps the greatest actress of them all, Sarah Bernhardt.

Sarah Bernhardt on stage
Sarah Bernhardt wears elbow-length white mousquetaire
gloves in one of her roles

Mme. Bernhardt had rather thin arms (by the standards of those days), and the long mousquetaires she wore onstage flattered her arms and hands perfectly, and drew attention to their expressive movements whenever she took the stage. Indeed, when she wore over-the-elbow gloves on one of her American tours, their beauty and elegance was so overwhelming to her audience that the mousquetaire almost immediately became universally accepted in America and Europe as a prerequisite for a lady's formal dress. (Severn, p. 39; Collins, p. 73-74) (Mme. Bernhardt, one of the great glove-wearers of all time, also was responsible for the popularizing of another important style, the four-button-length "slip-on" style.) The new style became immediately popular, ousting the previously universal short glove styles, as this article from a 1883 edition of Demarest's Magazine shows. (Article contributed by Marna Jean Davis, who also contributed the 1865 and 1911 articles on glove cleaning on the Collecting Opera Gloves page.)

The popularity of the opera glove/mousquetaire (I do not know precisely when the term "opera glove" was adopted, and would very much appreciate any information on this point) only grew through the remainder of the 19th century, hitting its peak in the Edwardian period (see also The Lillian Russell Glove Gallery). Lillian Russell, the famous New York actress and society beauty of the fin-de-siecle period, was known for her huge glove collection, especially her shoulder-length gloves, and was often photographed wearing them:

Lillian Russell
Lillian Russell wearing opera gloves

Lillian Russell 2
Lillian Russell wearing fingerless white kid opera gloves

Lillian Russell 3
Lillian Russell wearing white opera gloves in formal portrait

Miss Russell was particularly known for pedaling up and down Fifth Avenue on a gold-and-silver bicycle while wearing a gorgeous pair of white, shoulder-length kid gloves, causing passing pedestrians to stop and stare in awe and admiration (Collins, p. 76; Severn, p. 40). (More paintings and photographs of Sarah Bernhardt and Lillian Russell wearing opera gloves can be seen at The Sarah Bernhardt Glove Gallery, The Lillian Russell Glove Gallery, and The Lillie Langtry Glove Gallery.)

The illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson, Henry Hutt and Harrison Fisher are replete with pictures of beautiful ladies wearing kidskin opera gloves, almost universally white (white and its related colors, such as ivory, were considered the proper colors for gloves for formal occasions for many decades; black was considered a "daring" color, and opera gloves in other colors do not really seem to have started showing up until the 1920's or 1930's). Fisher, in particular, delighted in painting portraits of beautiful women in long gloves, as can be seen from this fine example of a contemplative young lady.

Harrison Fisher lithograph of a young woman in opera gloves
A young woman in opera gloves, by Harrison Fisher

In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, it was considered absolutely essential for a lady or gentleman to keep their gloves on at all times, even when bathing, and kid gloves were supposed to be skintight to a degree that would impress a modern-day fetishist. In fact, gloves in the Victorian period were so skintight that ladies were unable to button their mousquetaires without assistance, hence the invention of the buttonhook! It was, in fact, considered improperly alluring for women to put on or entirely remove opera-length gloves in public, and several etiquette writers of the time advised women to put on their long gloves at home before venturing outdoors. The button- or snap-fastened wrist opening which is the characteristic feature of the mousquetaire was put to very good use in this respect by many ladies of the period, who would slip their hands out through the opening to eat or drink while keeping the glove itself on. Harrison Fisher's painting of a young woman at tea demonstrates this custom in action.

Harrison Fisher painting of a young woman at tea
A young lady takes her hand out of her opera glove through the wrist opening while having her tea, by Harrison Fisher

The kid opera glove has become one of the items of clothing, next to the button-up shoe, that is most associated with the elegance of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Currently, though, long white opera gloves are most closely associated with Kate Winslett's role in the 1997 movie "Titanic"; she wears kidskin opera gloves during a key dinner scene in the film, as the photograph below shows; more images are available in the galleries.

Kate Winslett in Titanic
Kate Winslett wears white kid opera gloves in "Titanic"

It is difficult, again, to overemphasize the importance of the glove to feminine fashion in this period of history. Gloves are, and were, so much associated with elegance and high class that they were worn on all possible occasions, from weddings to funerals. Indeed, speaking of funerals, it was for centuries a common custom for distinguished personages, male and female, upon their deaths to be laid out and buried wearing gloves. This custom survived into the early 20th century, as this photograph of Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, lying in state after her assassination (along with her husband, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand) in 1914, attests.

Sophie Maria Josephine Albina Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, 1868-1914
Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, lies in state following her 1914 assassination, wearing white kidskin opera gloves

Even to this day, the custom of "funeral gloves" (as Collins calls them in her excellent little book) survives with the presentation of gloves to pallbearers in many funerals. On a happier note, it is also still customary, at many weddings, for the bride and groom to give pairs of gloves to their attendants. This, in itself, is a survival of a very old custom from the times when gloves were quite expensive and were considered to be extremely significant symbolic gifts of love and friendship.

(For a comprehensive list of gallery pages relating to this period available at For the Love of Opera Gloves, please visit Opera Gloves in the Late Victorian and Edwardian Eras: The General Index.)

Opera Gloves in the 20th Century

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, very few actresses (being well-brought-up, even if they did get up to all sorts of hijinks!) would be caught dead on the street without their gloves. Attitudes toward gloves varied, of course. For instance, Vivien Leigh, who hated the way her hands looked - she considered them to be far too big for her small frame - would wear gloves on every occasion she could get away with it, whereas Myrna Loy, who was quite vain of her hands, preferred to leave them bare unless it was required for her to wear gloves for some role or occasion. Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Gina Lollobrigida are among the actresses of the 1950's - the last golden age of gloves (gloves were an important part of Christian Dior's New Look, and opera gloves were often worn as part of daytime outfits, usually with sleeveless or short-sleeved dresses, during this decade) - who are most associated with glove-wearing. Audrey Hepburn, in particular, is known for her love for the so-called "three-quarter" length of glove (reaching to just below the elbow), and her gloved image as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is indelibly imprinted on the public's mind. Marilyn Monroe was another great glove wearer, especially in her movie roles; she wore hot pink opera gloves with a strapless gown of the same shade for her immortal "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" number in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes".

While the wearing of gloves, as an indispensable part of a woman's outfit, fell into desuetude during the 1960's, opera gloves still pop up whenever a woman wants to look elegant or sexy. Most recently, for example, country singer Shania Twain set the 1999 Grammy awards ceremony on its ear when she performed in an outfit that included shoulder-length, fringed black opera gloves.

Shania Twain, 1999
Shania Twain rocks out in shoulder-length black opera gloves at the 1999 Grammys show

In 1992, Geena Davis wowed the 1992 Academy Awards with an outfit that included gleaming white satin opera gloves that went literally all the way up to the shoulder.

Geena Davis, 1992
Geena Davis wears shoulder-length white satin opera gloves to the 1992 Academy Awards

The Canadian actress Deborah Duchene also made a powerful impression on viewers of the much-loved vampire TV series "Forever Knight" by making black opera gloves (leather, silk, satin, and velvet) an important part of the style of her character, Janette duCharme, as the reader can see in this photograph:

Deborah Duchene as Janette duCharme
The actress Deborah Duchene in full costume, including black opera gloves, for her role as Janette in "Forever Knight"

To this day, actresses, singers and celebrities such as Sarah Ferguson carry on the grand tradition of elegance and romance by wearing opera gloves!

Fergie at the Golden Globes, 2004
Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York, wears black opera gloves at the 2004 Golden Globe Awards show

A Note on Kid Leather

Kidskin is an extremely soft, smooth, thin type of leather, made from the skins of milk-fed baby goats (kids). These kids are carefully raised so that they do not eat herbiage (which will change the texture of the skin in undesirable ways), or get bruised or scratched, so that their skins remain perfect and smooth. Kid leather is used for fine-grained, glace-finished (that is, grain finishing, a process in which a smooth, shiny finish is made on the topside of the skin by soft buffing or polishing on plush wheels) gloves, and kid gloves are often dyed so that the inside of the glove remains white. The traditional color for the kid glove - the default color, as it were - is white or some other related shade like ivory or taupe, and this color was and is especially favored for formal wear, but other colors, such as black, red, blue and brown have also found favor.

Kidskin gloves, as worn by ladies and gentlemen, first appear to be mentioned (though they may have been worn before then) during the reign of Marguerite of Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henry de Navarre and the daughter of Catherine de Medici, who is generally to be held responsible for the popularization of glovewearing by women. (Catherine reportedly started her campaign to get women to wear gloves because she was tired of being overshadowed by gorgeously dressed men - and gloves were a key part of men's costume in that period.) Catherine de Medici had beautiful hands and loved wearing gloves; a gift of gloves - gloves, in these days, were quite expensive - was reliably regarded as a token of her highest esteem. Returning to the period of her daughter Marguerite, kid gloves, as worn during this period, were often richly scented (it has always been popular to perfume gloves; many a lady would keep a perfumed sachet in her glove box in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) and carefully dyed to match the colors of the wearer's favorite wines.

At about the same time, Elizabeth I of England introduced the same fashion of glove-wearing to English ladies. Good Queen Bess had shapely hands which she was quite vain about, and used gloves effectively to attract attention; similarly, at her royal audiences, she would sit on her throne playing with her gloves, pulling them on and off with studied care and deliberately striking poses with her gloved hands. For instance, at the abovementioned 1566 ceremony in which she wore those 18" gauntlets, she pulled them off and put them back on repeatedly so that everyone might see and enjoy the graceful movements of her hands. (Severn, p. 34). She would also wear gloves when playing the virginal (a musical instrument similar to the spinet) She wore many other striking pairs of gloves, as can be seen in this portrait of Bette Davis in her role as Elizabeth in "The Virgin Queen".

For more pictures of the opera glove as it has evolved through history, please visit our online gallery!


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